'Mutual fund' skewers big business, politics
Anti-corporate agitator hopes pranks provoke thought on company culture
By Andy Dworkin / The Dallas Morning News
With no headquarters, no cash profits and no love lost for big business, Rtmark may be the world's strangest "mutual fund" company.
It butched up Barbie dolls for its first big project. Then Rtmark (which the company spells (r)(tm)ark and which is pronounced "artmark") dismantled the music of pop star Beck.
Now the loose-knit gang of cultural provocateurs has angered Gov. George W. Bush with an Internet site that skewers his references to "youthful indiscretions" and his tough-on-crime stance.
Next could be any of the 80 projects in Rtmark's "funds," which pay workers for anti-corporate activism.
Legally marry a corporation, and Rtmark will dole out $200. It's $400 if you persuade a high-profile company, such as Nike, to fund a baby's education in exchange for tattooing its logo on the tyke. And $2,000 goes to the first court to imprison a corporation under a "three strikes, you're out" law.
Rtmark believes its sabotage publicly raises questions about the motives, power and legal treatment of corporations.
"Could there be a stronger public sector? Could the private sector be less private..ö.ö..less of a shadow government?" asked Rick Prelinger, a film archivist and one of Rtmark's "fund managers."
Frank Guerrero, a New York-based spokesman, added: "Our bottom line is trying to agitate socially in order to enact, hopefully, some legislation to limit the actions of corporations."
Rtmark tasted its first fame in 1993 when it bankrolled the Barbie Liberation Organization, which swapped the voice boxes on several hundred talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls to highlight gender stereotypes in the toy business. The soprano Joes asked, "Will we ever have enough clothes?" while Barbie growled "Vengeance is mine."
At that time, Rtmark was an underground organization. Mr. Guerrero said it "went public" in 1997 by turning on its "rtmark.com" Web site.
That site, promising "Corporate Consulting for the 21st Century," lists Rtmark's "funds" - groups of ideas for new anti-corporate projects. Many have "celebrity fund managers," such as real mutual funds - people such as Mr. Prelinger and author and National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu, who advocated the group's annual "Phone In Sick Day" on NPR.
Rtmark doesn't think up all the acts, but it gathers and distributes donations to fund them. A spokesman declined to say how many donations Rtmark receives each year, but said "most years [it] goes into the thousands" of dollars.
The group's brand of agitation may well find sympathy in a workforce tiring of mass firings, mergers and large, impersonal corporations, workplace experts say.
"There's an infinite number of ways that people get even," said Vanderbilt University professor Terry Deal. "I think it's a lot more common than really anybody would realize."
Mr. Deal, who co-wrote The New Corporate Culture, said much worker unhappiness comes from companies that focus on investors' interests to the exclusion of customers, workers and their communities.
"And I think the reason we're seeing so much [anti-corporate action] now is that with downsizing, outsourcing, etc., so much of corporate America has become either sterile or toxic," he said.
Officials with some companies targeted by past Rtmark projects say the group's acts, while minor, lack both sense and justice.
"It's interesting that they're doing Beck and then Bush. It looks like they're taking everything apart," said Jennifer Press, a spokeswoman for BMG Entertainment, which complained that Rtmark infringed its copyright by funding an album of rearranged Beck music.
Taking things apart and reassembling them in thought-provoking ways is Rtmark's stock in trade.
"Rtmark sees itself as a for-profit corporation. But the profits are cultural dividends - there's no money coming through," Mr. Guerrero said.
While it once registered as a Delaware corporation, Mr. Guerrero said Rtmark deregistered when it couldn't figure out how to declare its "cultural profits" on tax forms.
The group has no headquarters. It comprises individuals scattered across the country and is privately funded.
While the Barbie project is probably the group's best known, the current spoof of possible Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush may gather more attention.
The Internet flap started when a Massachusetts man bought the site name "gwbush.com" but failed in his efforts to sell it to the Bush campaign for tens of thousands of dollars.
So he let Rtmark use the site to post pictures that looked like the true Bush campaign site with text that alleged cocaine use by Mr. Bush and criticized the power of corporations in politics.
The Bush campaign responded by asking Rtmark to take down the site. Then, in early May, it asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate the site as unregulated campaign material. The Bush campaign also tried to head off similar pranks by purchasing dozens of other site names, including negative ones such as "bushsux.org."
Mr. Bush called the gwbush.com site "garbage."
Rtmark says the federal filing touched off a wave of publicity that has generated "several million" viewings of its gwbush.com site. The group has responded by updating the site with fake news releases, such as one that quotes Mr. Bush comparing advertising to pornography. It promises upcoming information on "Bush's 'corporations in prison' initiative."
Rtmark has also bought more site names, including "bushisnicely dressed.org," and is trying to reserve sites related to Vice President Al Gore, Mr. Guerrero said.
Mr. Bush isn't the only one whose image Rtmark has appropriated. The group runs Internet sites that feature symbols of McDonald's and the Anglo-Dutch corporation Royal Dutch/Shell, owner of Houston-based Shell Oil Co. Every 10th visitor to "rtmark.com" gets bounced to one of these sites, which poke fun at the companies and lead to the list of Rtmark's "fund" projects.
Shell issued a statement saying it has "some awareness about their [Rtmark's] fraudulent Web sites; however, no final decisions have been made about how to address it."
Some past targets were angered by Rtmark's use of corporate images, information and products for unintended purposes. Several corporate officials said the pranks seem minor but they involve damaging actions.
"Our attitude was, while we can take a joke, it's product tampering and not the best thing for the consumer," said Lisa McKendall, a spokeswoman for Mattel Inc., which makes Barbie. She added that the voice box swap meant that product safety could no longer be ensured.
Peter Brodsky, a BMG attorney who fought the distribution of the Rtmark-funded Deconstructing Beck album, said, "Everybody objects to copyright infringement, I guess, and that's what we consider them doing."
But Rtmark does not hold sacred all copyrights and trademarks. That's a point of view increasingly shared by artists from Andy Warhol to contemporary musicians who "sample" other music in their songs.
"I am not a proponent of harmful action - but these companies do protest too much," Mr. Codrescu said. "Mattel's Barbies are abysmal cliches, bad for girls. Copyright in the cyber-age is an anachronism. Rtmark says these things with art."
Mr. Guerrero added that the group believes its fake Web sites constitute a fair use of company images "because they are, at their core, satires of these other sites."
Still, if it seems that Rtmark is asking for a lawsuit - well, it is. Mr. Guerrero said the group presumes it will one day be sued by a big corporation that it sabotages and it expects to lose the suit.
"And create a publicity event around that to raise awareness" of Rtmark's anti-corporate agenda, Mr. Guerrero said.